“Offered them a wager,” said Drusus, relenting, and taking the word from the shadow’s mouth. “And- ha, ha, ha!- one fellow with not enough skin on his face to make a worm for a carp stepped forth, and- ha, ha, ha!- said yes. I drew my tablets. ‘Who is your man?’ I asked. ‘Ben-Hur, the Jew,’ said he. Then I: ‘What shall it be? How much?’ He answered, ‘A- a-‘ Excuse me, Messala. By Jove’s thunder, I cannot go on for laughter! Ha, ha, ha!”
The listeners leaned forward.
Messala looked to Cecilius.
“A shekel,” said the latter.
“A shekel! A shekel!”
A burst of scornful laughter ran fast upon the repetition.
“And what did Drusus?” asked Messala.
An outcry over about the door just then occasioned a rush to that quarter; and, as the noise there continued, and grew louder, even Cecilius betook himself off, pausing only to say, “The noble Drusus, my Messala, put up his tablets and- lost the shekel.”
“A white! A white!”
“Let him come!”
“This way, this way!”
These and like exclamations filled the saloon, to the stoppage of other speech. The dice-players quit their games; the sleepers awoke, rubbed their eyes, drew their tablets, and hurried to the common centre.
“I offer you- ”
“And I- ”
The person so warmly received was the respectable Jew, Ben-Hur’s fellow-voyager from Cyprus. He entered, grave, quiet, observant. His robe was spotlessly white; so was the cloth of his turban. Bowing and smiling at the welcome, he moved slowly towards the central table. Arrived there, he drew his robe about him in a stately manner, took seat, and waved his hand. The gleam of a jewel on a finger helped him not a little to the silence which ensued.
“Romans- most noble Romans- I salute you!” he said.
“Easy, by Jupiter! Who is he?” asked Drusus.
“A dog of Israel- Sanballat by name- purveyor for the army; residence, Rome; vastly rich; grown so as a contractor of furnishments which he never furnishes. He spins mischief, nevertheless, finer than spiders spin their webs. Come- by the girdle of Venus! let us catch him!”
Messala arose as he spoke, and, with Drusus, joined the mass crowded about the purveyor.
“It came to me on the street,” said that person, producing his tablets, and opening them on the table with an impressive air of business, “that there was great discomfort in the palace because offers on Messala were going without takers. The gods, you know, must have sacrifices; and here I am. You see my colour; let us to the matter. Odds first, amounts next. What will you give me?”
The audacity seemed to stun his hearers.
“Haste!” he said. “I have an engagement with the consul.”
The spur was effective.
“Two to one,” cried half-a-dozen in a voice.
“What!” exclaimed the purveyor, astonished. “Only two to one, and yours a Roman!”